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February 4, 2011

Egypt and Lord Elgin

In the Feb. 1 Wall Street Journal, Alex Joffe laments the destruction of precious art objects amidst the Egyptian crisis. Though the extent of the losses remains unclear, even a handful is surely too many. The Egyptian Museum contains some of the finest antiquities in the world, and Egypt's archaeological sites are of course about as good as it gets.

In Joffe's wide-ranging discussion of how bad authoritarian regimes are for art's preservation (very), Afghanistan and Iraq get their well-deserved lumps. But then Joffe moves on to Greece. He suggests that Egypt proves all over again that returning the Parthenon Marbles (otherwise known as the Elgin Marbles) is a bad idea. As evidence, he cites the economic riots last year in Athens.

This should go over well with the Greeks, who have campaigned for the return of the sculptures for years now, and even built a special museum to house them. Not long ago, they also went seriously into hock so that the rest of us could enjoy ourselves at the Olympics. (No more ouzo for you, Alex Joffe.)

Some sites are always going to be safer for the protection of art than others. But art's connection to native soil is part of its power. Housed at home, artworks continually nourish the culture that produced them. Besides, much as we would like to protect all the greatest works of humankind for all time, there are no guarantees.

The sculptures that Lord Elgin spirited away from the Parthenon do seem fairly safe inside the British Museum, where they have been since the early 19th Century. ("Safe" in this case forces the discounting of some unfortunate restoration attempts.) But who in Lord Elgin's day would have anticipated an aerial bombardment of London? As Donald Rumsfeld likes to say, "stuff happens."

The French have a long tradition of street demonstrations which can and sometimes do turn ugly. Should all the treasures in the Louvre be moved to higher ground?

There are good arguments on both sides over whether to repatriate the Parthenon Marbles. But fear of out-of-control Greeks should not, I think, be seen as one of them.

February 4, 2011 2:00 PM | | Comments (2)


Losing one's marbles is always a tragedy. The sense of place is critical for both aritistic and historical continuity. History isn't just in the past, it exists in the present, in every space and place, as new eyes and hands see and touch what was once treasured, then was lost and now is treasured again.

It's a tragedy history is being treated shamelessly, it should be preserved at all costs it is the only proof of existence of those who built them. It is a proof of culture and how far the world has come to. Developing without preserving what is already made will ruin the generations.

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